Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Alison from TX. Alison Wonders, “What was the dust bowl” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Alison!
It's easy to enjoy the beauty of a day full of sunshine, but have you learned to appreciate a rainy day and even a thunderstorm or two? Some people have even made it their profession to chase storms, such as tornadoes and hurricanes.
The kinds of storms we're used to include cracks of thunder and bolts of lightning, along with rolling clouds and buckets of rain. But what if a storm consisted of swirling winds filled with dust and grains of sand…so much dust and sand that the Sun was blotted out and high noon looked like the heart of midnight?
While such storms may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, they were all too real for residents of the central and southwestern plains during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. In places like Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, these storms — called "black blizzards" — were a common sight for the better part of a decade.
In the late 19th century, the central and southwestern plains drew pioneers west. Millions of acres of grassy lands promised years of prosperity for farmers. All that changed in the early 1930s, when a combination of environmental and man-made factors created one of the worst ecological disasters the United States has ever seen.
Already suffering from the economic impact of the Great Depression, the central and southwestern plains states experienced a period of extended drought, high temperatures, and strong winds from 1931-1939. These environmental factors would've been bad enough on their own, but they were made worse by detrimental agricultural practices that led to the wind erosion that gave this era its name: the Dust Bowl.
In the wake of World War I and the economic recession that followed, many farmers tried new farming techniques to try to increase their profits. Using newly-purchased plows, farmers converted millions of acres of drought-resistant natural grasses into fields of wheat. These grain crops lacked the strong root structure of the natural grasses, setting the stage for an ecological disaster.
When the drought hit, crops suffered and the once-fertile topsoil blew away in the strong winds, creating the dust storms the era is known for. Millions of acres were left barren, unsuitable for crops and even more vulnerable to drought.
Historians estimate that the Dust Bowl era affected as much as 75% of the United States in some way. Between two and three million people are believed to have migrated even further west, into California, looking for work or new land. These migrants were nicknamed "Okies," since many of them came from Oklahoma.
The federal government enacted various pieces of legislation during the Dust Bowl, seeking to provide assistance to those affected. Some of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" programs included mortgage and farming relief acts, as well as programs and agencies such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Soil Conservation Service (SCS).
While these efforts helped farmers learn how to work their lands in environmentally-friendly ways, ultimate relief didn't come until the rains returned in 1939. The 1940s saw many of these lands return to productive use, but some of the same mistakes were repeated in the wake of World War II, when grain prices again rose and prompted farmers to plant wheat instead of natural grasses.